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Self-cleaning laundry

New Scientist

Why wash your shirt when bugs can eat it clean?

MOST of us try to wash bacteria out of our clothes. Not so Alex Fowler. He wants several thousand bugs to set up home inside every single fibre of a fabric, living, breeding and eating up the dirt. Welcome to the era of self-cleaning clothes.

Eventually, the garments in your wardrobe may be able to support a variety of bacteria engineered to eat odour-causing chemicals and human sweat. Other bacteria might secrete waterproof and protective coatings to extend the life of clothing and produce antiseptic for bandages.

Ironically, textile makers have spent millions developing fibres blended with, say, silver ions or chlorine to kill off the bugs in fabric. But encouraging bacteria to grow on fibres turned out to be harder than Fowler had expected. "I thought they would wick into the fibre by capillary action, but it didn't turn out like that," he says. Brute force was required.

Fowler and his team from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, developed a vacuum pump that could connect to the end of the hollow fibres from the milkweed plant. Although no longer used to make clothes, the plant is still used to make rope.

The pump sucks a few drops of agar jelly containing Escherichia coli into the fibre. The bacteria easily formed a thriving colony and began to breed. In the most recent tests, Fowler had no problem firing several hundred bacteria into the fibre. "They're tough little guys," says Fowler.

Fowler uses a harmless strain of E. coli genetically engineered to produce a fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. This makes the bacterium glow as it grows, allowing researchers to monitor its progress.

So far, the group can't be sure how long the bacteria will survive in the fibres. They'll probably become dormant after several weeks when their food supply runs out, but Fowler hopes to reactivate them by soaking the milkweed fibres in additional nutrients. So if your shirt was impregnated with a strain of E. coli designed to feed on human sweat and the proteins that cause body odours, you'd only have to wear it to jolt the bugs into action. For some other strains, you might have to douse it with additional nutrients occasionally. "You could end up having to feed your shirt instead of wash it," says Fowler.

Alex Lightman, chief executive officer of Charmed Technology, a California-based fashion company that designs futuristic outfits, says the market may not be ready for a living suit just yet, but he thinks it's a great idea. "I like it, get me one," he says.

Lightman points out that most people are familiar with the idea that we have bacteria living on us all the time anyway. "I wear the same pair of jeans all the time and I'm sure they have bacterial colonies living in them, but if they were selected to convert my sweat into sweet-smelling pheromones, that would be great," he says.

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Author: Eugenie Samuel, Boston

New Scientist issue: 7th July 2001

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